So called “the eighth wonder of the world”, the Panama Canal is an engineering and construction marvel and a testament to the vision and drive of a number of far sighted leaders who overcame almost insurmountable obstacles to complete it.
The earliest known vision of a transcontinental canal connecting the Caribbean Sea with the Pacific Ocean is credited to King Charles V of Spain in the 1500s. His advisers correctly concluded that such a canal (at that time) could not be successfully dug. With the scientific and industrial advances of the next several centuries, serious consideration of a canal linking the two oceans began in the mid 1800s. A private French company, under the leadership of Ferdinand de Lesseps, unsuccessfully spent hundreds of millions of dollars (US) over the period 1880 – 1888 (the company went bankrupt in 1889) attempting to build a SEA LEVEL canal across the isthmus of Panama (from Colon to Panama City). de Lesseps, while not an engineer, but a charismatic leader and entrepreneur, HAD successfully built the Suez Canal (completed in 1869) for the French.
Panama at that point was a province of Colombia, itself much smaller than decades earlier — as both Venezuela and Ecuador had declared independence from Colombia. With the blatant assistance of the United States (US Navy warships sailed into the harbor — just ahead of the revolt — as a measure of support), a group of revolutionaries in Panama successfully declared independence from Colombia on 3 November 1903. Immediately after that, to no one’s surprise, Panama signed a very lop-sided treaty with the United States of America, giving away a 10-mile wide “canal zone” to the U.S. which was to have permanent sovereignty over the zone — during their construction of a canal and thereafter.
The Americans, spurred on by President Theodore Roosevelt (who had winked and nodded approval of the Panamanian revolution), decided to build the transcontinental canal in Panama, rather than in Nicaragua (after Congress was scared off from Nicaragua by the fear of volcanoes and earthquakes destroying an American-built canal if they had built there). With advances in surveying, mechanical equipment, metal working, mechanical design, railroads and concrete, the Americans correctly redesigned the canal to be a LOCK CANAL. Perhaps the biggest flaw in the French design was ignoring the fact that the Chagres River, which was to cross their sea level canal in several places across the isthmus, floods in the winter rains, rising as much as 46 feet (14 meters) in a couple of days. The Americans designed and built a dam on the Chagres River near Colon, just before the Chagres River empties into the Caribbean Sea. Over the course of 1913 and 1914, the resulting man-made lake — Lake Gatun — then solved the problem of transiting the country (with the digging of miles and miles of channels!) and eliminated the problem of the Chagres River flooding.
There are two sets of locks on the Panama Canal. The three contiguous, serial locks on the Caribbean side are the Gatun locks. They raise (or lower) ships 84 feet (25.6 meters) from the Caribbean Sea to Lake Gatun (in the morning) and handle reverse direction traffic each afternoon. On the Pacific Ocean side the set of locks is actually a single and a double lock.
Completed in 1914, the entire American designed and constructed Panama Canal has remained in continuous operation (interrupted only by war) to the present time with virtually all of the same, original facilities (dams, locks, gates, etc.); the few exceptions include computerized controls and a second generation of canal “mules” (electric locomotives that pull the ships into position and through and out of the locks).
This series of photographs takes us through the Gatun locks. Parts two and three of these blog posts will transit Lake Gatun and then descend through the Pacific Ocean side locks.
We were particularly excited to spend the day sailing through the canal (9 hours from lock entry on the Caribbean Sea side to lock exit on the Pacific Ocean side, and 11 hours total from the Caribbean Sea breakwater to the Bridge of the Americas at Balboa at the Pacific Ocean) after slogging through David McCollough’s excellent history of the canal, The Path Between the Seas. The book introduces the reader to a wide cast of incredible characters, including Frenchman Phillippe Bunau-Varilla; the leader of the successful war against yellow fever and malaria, American doctor William Gorgas; and two American Chief Engineers – John Stevens and Colonel George Goethals, besides Ferdinand de Lesseps and President Roosevelt. Some of the stories prove that life can be stranger than fiction!
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